Music and Emotion in Worship

Jeremy Begbie is a joy to read. A Peculiar Orthodoxy is a thoughtfully compiled series of lectures and essays that Begbie had created over the span of a decade and wished to share with a wider readership. These essays deserve to be widely read. Yet, most laity and many undergraduate students would find the essays difficult and, perhaps, irrelevant. This is precisely why pastors and professors should engage with Begbie’s work, inviting their congregations and classrooms into conversations around the “peculiar orthodoxy” Begbie finds through the theology of the arts.

In the chapter “Faithful Feelings,” for example, Begbie addresses worship, music, and emotions. It can be difficult, as a pastor, to grasp the fullness of worship, the place of music in worship, and the role emotions should play in leading and participating in worship. Advent highlights this difficulty well. What is a pastor to do when many folks in the congregation think Advent is simply “Christmas preseason,” and feel frustrated when the pastor preaches lectionary texts that are not filled with the holly jolly sentimentalities? What is worship for, they might ask, if it is not meant solely to cover the harshness of life with warm fuzzy feelings? What has worship to do with actually addressing our complex emotional lives?

After an interesting discussion on the philosophy and psychology of music and emotion, Begbie offers a pastorally helpful summary on how worship can faithfully engage the emotions through music. But, first, let me share Begbie’s working definition of worship. Begbie writes, 

By ‘worship’ here, I mean those regular occasions when the church is gathered by the Triune God to receive and celebrate its corporate identity in a focused, concentrated way. More succinctly, in worship we are reoriented by God to God. If sin is a rejection of our calling to honor the Creator, a refusal to praise God, in worship we are redirected (reconciled) to the One worthy of all praise and reoriented in love to one another and thus built up as the people of God. And as we are built up as God’s people, we are redirected to God’s world in mission. The indwelling agent of this reorientation is the Holy Spirit, and its mediator is Jesus Christ.

If worship is God’s act of reorienting us to God “in a focused, concentrated way,” then what role might music play? Begbie suggests that God uses music to “enable a more concentrated emotional engagement with the object or objects with which we are dealing.” By “concentrated,” Begbie means moving beyond generalizations. (One might, on this point, refer to the chapter “Created Beauty,” where Begbie acknowledges the Holy Spirit’s dual work of harmonizing us into the body of Christ and perfecting our uniqueness.) Each life is complex and messy. We are often faced with “objects” that stir up emotions which evade meaningful intellectual analysis or engagement. Through music, we are “emotionally educated” and, in the context of worship where Christ is presiding as chief priest, God begins to “re-form” our emotions accordingly.

Perhaps I can present Begbie’s point in another way. In the movie Bird Box, the main character, Malorie, lives in a world in which she must wear a blindfold to avoid a mysterious, deadly plague. We can think of the plague as a plague of despair that comes from seeing death all around us. Malorie’s world is a complex, messy world to live in. She relies on two “tools,” if you will, to guide her in this complex world. First: a thread. When leaving on a journey, she ties the thread to an object to anchor her to her initial location. This way, though she cannot see, she will be able to find her way home. Second, and this one is more clearly relatable to Begbie’s chapter: birds. Malorie keeps a few birds with her because they sing and flutter when the deadly plague draws near. Their movement and music enable Malorie to recognize the messy, complex plague that she cannot see and that she certainly cannot describe. The birds’ noise makes Malorie aware of the messy emotions she is dealing with and the thread leads her safely home. Likewise, music in worship may make us aware of our own complexities and provide us with something to hold onto as we journey through them in sanctification.

At the risk of belaboring the point, let me provide a clear example from the hymnal. In the second verse of “Amazing Grace,” we sing “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” This is precisely what Begbie imagines God doing through music in worship. God utilizes the aesthetic, dynamic qualities of music to uncover a deep and difficult emotion—like fear. Then God, through grace, re-forms that accordingly. Grace taught us; grace relieved us. Music can carry us into the depths of our emotions, the highs and lows, and the Spirit carries grace right into the center of our emotions, so they become healed, concentrated in the heart of God. Though this example relies on the lyrical content of a hymn, every musical element—from the chord progression of the guitar, to the melody of the piano, to the rhythm of the prayers—invites us beyond generalities and into the intimacies of God’s healing love for us. What a way to imagine worship.

The danger, which is so obvious during Advent in most American churches, is to misunderstand the place of music and emotion in worship. “If the orientation,” Begbie writes, “is askew or the emotion inappropriate, then manipulation, sentimentality, and emotional self-indulgence are among the ever-present dangers.” Some people think music in worship is meant to entertain, as an antidote to the bore of prayers and preaching. This is a form of emotional self-indulgence. Others think music ought to amp up a crowd, as if healthy worship can only begin with a racing heart. This is a form of using music to manipulate people into an “experience” of worship. During Advent, the temptation is sentimentalize everything so that the Christian faith has about the same effect as a Hallmark card. But when music is understood within the context of worship, as defined above, it is far more than we can imagine. Music becomes a harbinger of God’s holiness breaking into the human being and the human community in a profoundly transformative way. God’s grace uses music to reveal our emotions and God’s grace begins healing an emotion. It is amazing grace, indeed.

Begbie’s intellect is impressive. His exemplary style of interdisciplinary theology is notable. But his ability to provoke worship leaders beyond the generalities and cliches of worship into the profundity of it all is the true gift of this book. Enjoy!


Buy a copy of A Peculiar Orthodoxy from the Baker Academic here. 

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